Next month, my wife and I are thinking of packing our kids in the car and heading out to the woods for some family time in the fresh air. How can we make sure our camping trip is as environmentally friendly as possible?
Camping is always a green activity—getting out into the natural world helps underscore precisely why conservation and sustainability are such important endeavors. But the last thing you want to do is harm the very environment you've trekked out to appreciate. Green camping, then, is all about getting as close as you can to nature without treading on it too heavily.
The first consideration is how rugged an experience you want to have. In many ways, taking your family to a well-developed campground will be kinder to the environment than striking out into the pristine wilderness. Recreation ecologists have found that the majority of damage caused by campsites—from trampled vegetation to soil erosion—tends to occur within the first several days of occupation, and that it usually takes longer for a site to recover than it does to degrade in the first place. Pitch your tent in a spot that's already seen plenty of visitors, and your own stay will have less of an impact. Plus, well-trafficked campgrounds are more likely to have collection systems for your trash, not to mention established toilet facilities. (Otherwise, prepare to become friendly with the DIY disposal method known as the cathole—unless, of course, you're up for "packing out" your own poop.) If you do decide to take your brood into the backcountry, visit the Leave No Trace Web site for more information on how to do so responsibly.
Wherever you decide to camp, you should plan to leave as little evidence of your visit as possible. You can make that task a lot easier by bringing less stuff in the first place. It might be tempting to burn away any traces of your presence by throwing your paper plates in the campfire. Don't do it! Burning garbage—even paper products—can release harmful pollution, and items often burn incompletely. Whatever you do, don't leave any litter behind: Not only does it pose a danger to wildlife, but it could make subsequent visitors feel more comfortable littering, too.
It's just as important to avoid leaving behind harmful living things. Insect stowaways in imported firewood, for example, can wreak havoc in a new habitat. Invasive species are an especially important problem when it comes to waterways. Anglers can introduce non-native organisms into aquatic ecosystems via their unwashed boots, boats, and tackle. (The Lantern can't think of anything half as sad as whirling disease, a parasite-borne sickness that causes afflicted fish to swim in endless corkscrews.) So make sure to properly clean and dry anything that comes into contact with the water—that includes your dog—before moving on to a new stream or lake.
Finally, while camping is about getting up close and personal with nature, you don't want to get too close with local fauna. This isn't just a safety issue; it's also a matter of maintaining a proper ecological balance. Animals that get too friendly with humans—or, more specifically, with human food—can quickly become dependent on scraps, losing their ability to forage or hunt for themselves. That leaves them in dire straits come winter, when tourists abandon the campgrounds. To prevent this outcome, make sure you store your food securely and dispose of your dishwater, which might contain some stray food particles. If your campground doesn't have a dedicated place for dishwater, strain out any bits of food using a piece of cloth or a plastic bag with a small hole in it and pack them away with your trash. Then scatter the leftover water as widely as possible, staying at least 200 feet from any water source.
No matter how responsibly you behave out in the woods, though, you can easily negate that good work if you're careless about how you get there. Transportation comprises a major part of any vacation's environmental impact, as the Lantern has noted before. So first of all, choose a campground that's close to home. Second, consider your vehicle options. For a family of four, with luggage, a trip in a typical SUV that gets 18 miles per gallon will emit 0.38 pounds of carbon dioxide per passenger-mile. In an efficient car that gets 32 mpg, your emissions will come to 0.22 pounds, and in a 46 mpg hybrid, just 0.15 pounds. The longer your journey, the more those differences add up—so if you're crossing state lines to sleep under the stars, think about renting a more efficient set of wheels.
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